When our nuclear accumbens (NAcc) is stimulated (that’s a part of our brain that generates pleasurable feelings) it triggers a massive release of dopamine (Lehrer 34-35). Continuous stimulation of the NAcc renders us worthless, so I guess you can really die laughing.
Unfortunately, it’s this same area that can be responsible for addictions. Some individuals have a genetic mutation that reduces their amount of dopamine receptors, which actually makes them less able to learn from their own mistakes (Lehrer 40). Therefore, after coming down from the last high, they forget the consequences of being high and seek the next one.
Dopamine helps us make decisions, and it’s all about expectation (Lehrer 37). Our dopamine neurons are constantly generating patterns based on experience. When you have a pleasurable experience, dopamine looks for clues that led to the experience so it can be repeated. When you make a mistake, that means you did something that you expected would turn out well, but when it didn’t, you didn’t get the dopamine surge you were expecting – so now your dope goes looking for clues to see what happened. This is known as “error-related negativity”, otherwise known as the oh shit circuit (Lehrer 38).
Our dope is constantly internalizing lessons of real life and making sure that neural patterns are up to date (Lehrer 39), so we can incorporate the lessons of our past into our future decisions.
So why do I keep making the same mistakes over and over? I’m sure you do too.
The reason we can make the same mistake twice, or thrice, or whatever, is that the dopamine neurons need to be continually trained and retrained, or else their accuracy declines (Lehrer 49). Apparently we are doomed to continually relearn the lessons of the past. Well, maybe not. It turns out that through practice, LOTS of quality practice, we learn how to make ourselves better (Lehrer 50-51).
- Mistakes have been given a bad rap. Mistakes, self-criticism, negative feedback is the secret to learning and improving – yes, we can learn from our mistakes (Lehrer 51).
- Unfortunately, our school systems tend to reward the kids that don’t make mistakes, calling them smart and the ones that do make mistakes, but continue to try, are seen as less intelligent or even stupid (Lehrer 52). Unless you experience the unpleasant feelings that come with being wrong your brain doesn’t adjust its model – you must fail before you can succeed (Lehrer 54).
- Whenever an expert (in anything) analyzes a situation, they don’t systematically compare all the available options and data or consciously analyze the relevant information (Lehrer 54). Instead, he or she naturally relies on the emotions generated by their dopamine neurons, which guides their recommendations and decision-making (Lehrer 54).
So why can’t we all just rely our intuition instead of going to school, studying how things work and how they don’t work, reviewing best practices, etc. The reason is that good decision-making includes doing the homework first, and continually learning and relearning, so when the decision time comes, your brain has already done the heavy lifting and its helping guide you to the correct decision without conscious thought (Lehrer 54).
Here’s another interesting side note – when we experience a “pleasant surprise,” our dopamine neurons get ever MORE excited. This makes risky sex, gambling and other behaviors that can result in a pleasant surprise, attract us even more. And yes, casino operators know this – why do you think grandma spends her retirement mindlessly playing the slots for 18 hours a day.
While dopamine tries to lead us to good decisions, our emotion driven brain is also subject to innate flaws (Lehrer 61), leading us to pursue good feelings at the expense of long term satisfaction. And, there is such a thing has having too much information to be able to make a good decision. More on this in the next entry.
Lehrer, Jonah. How We Decide. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. Print.